Eating Out: Better than it sounds, honest

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The Independent Culture
THE GOOD COOK

Tabernacle Arts Centre, Powis Square, London W11, tel: 0171 565 7808. Open Mon-Sat for breakfast 9am-noon, for lunch noon-3pm, coffee and cakes served until 5pm; and Sun 11am-4pm for brunch. Opens for dinner from 26 Sept. Lunch prices from around pounds 4 to pounds 8 per person

IF REVENGE is a dish best eaten cold then this week I should be in gastronomic heaven. I've just been to a restaurant so comically inept that it made Fawlty Towers look like the Quat' Saisons. I suppose I should be salivating with sadistic joy at the prospect of delivering a stinking review.

But the strange thing is that I'm not. Perhaps it's because my ears are still ringing with all the sweet young waiters' and waitresses' anguished farewell pleas: "Oh please, please come again! It's not always like this, we promise!" Perhaps it's because we ended up being given our lunch for free, or perhaps it's because I just know that once it gets its act together, the Good Cook will make a really wonderful, cheap, friendly place to eat.

Whatever, I just want to make it clear at this point that the Good Cook happened to serve me one of the worst lunches I have ever eaten and I like the place, I wish it well and would be more than happy to go there again.

The one thing you can't fault is its location. It's housed on the ground floor of the Tabernacle Arts Centre in Ladbroke Grove, west London, a monumental circular red-brick building in a quiet square. Besides making it a perfect stopping-off point after a hard morning's bargain hunting in the flea market on Portobello Road, it guarantees that you will be surrounded by a cool, young crowd of louche local trendies and trustafarians.

Anyway, such was the case on the sunny Saturday lunchtime I went there. All the tables had been dragged outdoors on to the spacious courtyard in front of the Tabernacle and almost every seat was filled by someone looking like a model, a high-class drug dealer or an up-and-coming rock star. The vibe was good and I felt privileged to be part of such a hip and happening scene. Not least because I'd had such difficulty getting a table.

Though we'd left two messages on the restaurant's answer machine asking for a table for 1pm, there were none available when we arrived. I went indoors to the service bar near the kitchen to find out what had happened. There were four waiters there, all of whom ignored me. Then another two arrived, who also ignored me. After five minutes I was getting cross. "I'll show you bastards!" I thought to myself. "Just wait till you see the foul review I'm going to give you."

But then their boss came along and foiled my scheme by being really nice and helpful. She apologised profusely for the restaurant's failure to acknowledge the reservation, found a spare table and had it brought outside for us.

Things were looking up. All we needed now was homemade lemonade to quench our raging thirst and we'd be ready to tackle the menu. "Sorry," we were told, "the lemonade's off." OK, we'll take the strawberry-melon-yogurt- and-honey smoothies. "Sorry," said the waitress, returning 10 minutes later. "We've run out."

This struck me as a terrible injustice. I'm not very good when I'm hungry and I began ranting about how ludicrous it was to run out of the drink- of-the-day on your specials menu when it was still only 1.30pm. Eventually, we settled for cranberry juice. This didn't arrive for at least half an hour, by which time we'd almost died of dehydration. Apparently, the cranberry juice was kept in a bar upstairs and no one could find the key.

Still, we remained optimistic. Almost everything on the imaginative and amazingly cheap specials menu sounded delicious: salmon carpaccio with cucumber, lime and mint salad - pounds 4; strawberry and amaretto fool with biscotti - pounds 2. And there was an equally impressive brunch menu, which included veggie and non-veggie breakfasts at pounds 3 a piece; pork and leek sausages with colcannon mash and red onion gravy - pounds 5, and an egg sandwich plus mug of tea for just pounds 1.

The best deal of all - which is probably why it was called The Good Deal - was the starter and main course combo chosen by Tiffany. Pea and baby gem soup followed by small conchiglie with buffalo ricotta and tomato: a snip at pounds 4 the pair. I went for a slightly weirder option: West Indian fish broth (because it sounded interesting) and huevos rancheros (because I felt breakfasty). James chose the cooked breakfast.

Several millennia later, Tiffany's soup arrived. But not the one she'd ordered. The waitress assured us it was pea and baby gem soup. "So how come it's got duck and noodles in it?" I asked. The waitress took it away. Ten minutes later she was back. "So sorry," she said plonking the duck and noodle soup in front of me. "It was yours, wasn't it?" Er no, I said, I'd ordered the fish broth.

At last something we'd actually ordered arrived. Tiffany's main course. "I hope you don't mind," said the waitress. "We've had some problems in the kitchen. Is it OK if you get your soup afterwards?" By this stage we were so hungry we wouldn't have cared if they'd served us a plate of worms. Tiffany wolfed down her conchiglie - "delicious" she said - before we could nick too much of it.

Then my soup appeared: one measly chunk of fish, a glutinous lump of off-white goo (dumpling, apparently) and some plantains swimming in a watery stock sprinkled with parsley. I couldn't finish it. "Any idea what fish it's made with?" I asked a passing waiter. He consulted the menu. "I think what you've got there is pea and lettuce soup," he explained helpfully.

Our misery had not gone unnoticed. "You're having a really bad time, aren't you?" said the head waiter. "I'm so sorry. We've been having some staff problems. Lunch is on us, all right?" Which made the 15-minute wait for the rest of our food marginally more bearable.

James's cooked breakfast was nice enough, though I reckon it could have been improved by some toast made with real (rather than pro-sliced white) bread and a proper, chunky, handmade sausage like the ones that win sausage competitions. These details really matter, I think. As for my Huevos Rancheros, they were pretty good too, although I'd grown so ravenous by the time they arrived I'd almost lost my appetite.

"Do you think they knew you were going to write about them?" whispered James as we left, pursued by grovellingly apologetic waiters. "God, I hope not," I said. "They'll worry themselves sick." Even the best restaurants in the world, I'm sure, have their off days. It's just that normally, they're not so unlucky as to have a critic on hand to witness them. So let me reiterate: I like the Good Cook; I think it's well worth a visit: and there's one thing I can guarantee: when you go there, you'll have a much, much better time than we did.

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